Unlocking the truth about George Pell's conviction

George Pell’s conviction was a surprise to me. I’m at a loss to explain to myself how it came about. It is astonishing to think that a man of his stature and cunning could have done such things. The victim’s presentation to the jury as sole witness must have been compelling. 

When I’m part of a ‘did he or didn’t he’ conversation, I argue that we cannot pretend to know if Pell is guilty because we were not present for the testimony of the witness. 

I am not an expert, but the more I read about the fragmentary and therefore ‘unreliable’ nature of human memory, the more I’m convinced that the form or demeanour of a testifying witness can be more telling than the verbal content of his or her testimony. 

Increasingly I’m reluctant to take literally words in the recall of a witness. In the same way, I’m not a biblical fundamentalist and therefore don’t read the Bible literally. I interpret its words in the light of a range of factors including studies in history and literature.

In the case of the Pell trial, I’m imagining that the jury would have interpreted the verbal recall in light of emotions the witness was displaying. They would have provided the key that those of us not present do not have to inform our judgment.

Many people dismiss any element of testimony that is thought to be guided by emotion. Court proceedings are based on rational argument that takes what a witness says literally. If holes can be picked in the verbal narrative of the witness, the allegations remain unproven. This might stand to reason, but I think the approach needs to be rethought.

I’m currently reading the recent book Diving for Seahorses: The Science and Secrets of Human Memory, which was written by two Norwegian sisters, one a neuropsychologist and the other a writer and journalist. It looks at the evolution of our understanding of memory, including the watershed questioning by the father of psychology William James, in the late 19th century.

‘When James was alive, people thought of each memory as a unit, a copy of reality, like something that could be pulled out of a folder in a filing cabinet.’

But instead the key to understanding memory came to be seen as the seahorse, ‘slowly swaying in rhythm with the sensory areas and the emotion and awareness centres of the brain’. 

Hence the Greek word for seahorse - hippocampus - was used to name the elongated ridges on the floor of each lateral ventricle of the brain, thought to be the centre of emotion and memory.

The fact that our recollections are influenced by emotions and sense perception - such as taste and smell - means that two people who have experienced the same phenomenon will often have completely different memories of it. 

This could explain why contextual information about Pell’s sexual abuse that was provided to the media by others does not square with the witness testimony of the victim. Because it's said to be unlikely that Pell would have returned so quickly to the sacristy, the victim's testimony is thought to be discredited.

The ABC journalist Louise Milligan is one of the few people aside from the jury to have met the victim. She said ‘I defy anyone to meet this man and not think that he is telling the truth.’

Perhaps we should refrain from advancing opinions on the truth or otherwise of the victim’s testimony until we get to meet him.

A journey to the far west of NSW and beyond

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend who urged me to write about my recent nine day trip to Broken Hill and the Flinders Ranges. This time last week I was returning to Sydney on the Broken Hill Explorer train after visiting the 'silver city', along with the Flinders Ranges and a couple of South Australian towns including Peterborough and Quorn.

I was without my travelling companion on the return journey. One 14 hour rail journey is enough for most people and he took a flight from Broken Hill to Sydney. But I'm a self-confessed train nerd and was more than happy to travel back on the weekly NSW passenger train that was removed from service a few decades ago and then reinstated after pressure from a local politician.

Long distance country trains can't compete with the airlines, and this one wasn't very full. I'd long been anxious to take the journey before the route is cancelled again. It beats the Indian Pacific to the extent that you get to travel across NSW during daylight hours and can witness the slow transition from Sydney's urban sprawl through the Blue Mountains and fertile farm lands to the sparse desert vegetation of the state's west. Gazing at the landscape through a train window is my idea of meditation.

Railways had been the economic lifeline of most of the towns we visited, and their decline accompanied economic stagnation. Rural industries have their good and bad years and this year the local communities are suffering hardship from the drought. Broken Hill was an Australian mining town like no other but there is no longer activity in that sector.

Everywhere there are signs of past prosperity. The city is struggling to reinvent itself through art and tourism and solar power generation. I remember noting in the 1970s that the city's population was a shade over 30,000, 3000 more than that of Albury, where I was growing up. Now Broken Hill's population is around 17,000 and Albury's approaching 60,000. There are a few bright spots such as the Living Desert Sculptures and the annual Broken Heel Festival in September, which celebrates the theatrical anniversary of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. 

If Broken Hill is on a long trajectory towards becoming a ghost town, nearby Silverton trades on being just that. With a population of just 50, it has been rescued from obscurity by the film and TV industry, which regularly uses the town and its surrounds for sets. We drove past the Mad Max Museum and the Silverton Hotel, which has featured in more than a dozen productions.

Coburn Hotel Cockburn SA

Our favourite ghost town was the once bustling South Australian border town of Cockburn, which has a population of 56. We stopped for lunch at the Coburn Hotel (above), which was recently saved from closure by residents, who take it in turns to volunteer to staff it. The president of the Progress Association Iris Williams proudly showed us around the hotel, which offers drinks, toasted sandwiches and simple accommodation. The following day, my guide at Peterborough's Steamtown heritage rail museum told me that he had been stationed at Cockburn when it was an important railway town.

Once one of Australia's most important rail hubs, Peterborough itself is just as quiet a working railway town as Cockburn. I walked the length of the abandoned railway platform, which is now covered in bird droppings. We had breakfast at the Duck Duck Goose Cafe, where the owner Matt told us about the cheap property prices and that he had not looked back since relocating from Newtown in Sydney. We told him that we too are from Newtown and he knew exactly how far we'd come culturally. 


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The love of fat

This morning I had the pleasure of listening to a podcast about fat, from a recent ABC radio broadcast.

It was a pleasure because it celebrated fat. Duck fat, butter, lard, bread and dripping, and suet were all discussed.

There was an interview with a veteran Italian-Australian butcher whose pet hate was customers asking for fat to be trimmed from the meat, despite knowing it would diminish the flavour.

That's because, over the past 50 years or so, most of the developed world has, it seems, been brainwashed into thinking that fat is bad for us.

Recently I've also watched That Sugar Film on SBS, which traces the history of the tarnishing of fat's public image, to the heart attack suffered by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955.

This event thrust the issue of heart disease into the public domain, with two theories emerging. One, from US physiologist Ancel Keys, declared that fat was the problem. The other was from British physician John Yudkin, who believed sugar was to blame.

Over the next two decades, the discussion brought fierce arguments from both camps. Keys won out, fat became the villain, sugar was exonnerated, and 'low fat' was institutionalised as the only healthy diet.

Not surprisingly, sugar industry lobbyists played a major role in demonising fat, which was systematically removed from otherwise healthy foods and replaced by sugar and carbohydrates.

One of my greatest sources of pleasure this year has been cheeses and sausages and other high fat foods including nuts, offal and full-fat Greek yoghurt. I have embraced these at the expense of sugar and carbs, and received very favourable blood test results from the GP earlier this month.

I was a healthy weight and receiving good test results for several years before I made the change in my diet. Friends wondered about my motivation, and sometimes I did as well. I guess my best explanation was that I did it 'for the love of fat'.

If there's a lesson for all of us at this time of new year's resolution making, it's that it's better to choose a positive lifestyle change that seems more like an indulgence, and to forget about 'giving up' something that is supposed to be not good for us.



Links: Podcast | That Sugar Film

 

Abstract thinkers living in bubbles

During the Christmas break I read Rick Morton's One Hundred Years of Dirt, which is one of the more acclaimed Australian memoirs published during 2018.

I found it an easy read in that it's less than 200 pages and beautifully written. But it was also very uncomfortable, for two reasons.

The first is its details of the wretched life he's led. This includes childhood trauma in outback Queensland followed by material poverty as an adolescent in a single parent household closer to the city. Then there's the emotional disability that has lasted to the present, in the life of the now 31 year old journalist at The Australian.

The second reason is that Morton's message is confronting for people with a world view like mine. He sees us as culture warriors from both sides of the political spectrum who never step outside our respective bubbles.

'We don't need more journalists from the right or from the left... What the media needs is more reporters with the ability to understand their subjects.'

Morton is speaking about politicians as much as he is journalists. He suggests that the quality of their understanding of people is just as important as the soundness of their policies.

That is a plausible explanation for the success of rogue politicians like Hanson and Trump, whose policies are inconsistent, shallow or non-existent.

The problem with the bubble-dwellers is that we grew up with university educations and a diet of comparatively abstract media content, largely from the ABC. This is where Rick Morton has the upper hand in understanding how people tick.

'Mum's life was hard and we relaxed by watching soap operas, reality television and The Today Show. I can't remember a time when we had ABC-anything on.'

Not only do the politicians and right and left culture warriors lack cut-through, but Morton talks about the anger they generate in the people they're seeking to win over.

'It's directed at a system that overwhelmingly keeps people in their place. ... I had no connections, no networks, no family even in the big cities where I would end up working.'

Morton attributes his eventual success to a combination of 'the handy resilience forged under such conditions' and 'dumb luck'.

He's now in a position to act as a bridge between those of us who believe that 'higher power prices are the cost of fighting climate change' and the many Australians for whom 'the slightest bump in their electricity bill means a deeper slide into poverty'.

Morton's first-hand experience of poverty enables him to credibly point the way to politicians in their bubbles, who are actually the ones who most need to be bridges between abstract thought and real life.

The importance of wage growth

The blemish on this week's 'beautiful set of numbers' announced by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was wage growth.

Australia's economy is performing well, at least for now. This is due to a combination of fortuitously high commodity prices and government fiscal restraint.

But wage growth is around two per cent per year, half what it was a couple of years ago. That's the slowest sustained rate of growth since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This interests me because I'm coming to the end of a short-term paid research task for a Sydney academic. She is comparing the diminishment of the wage system during the Great Depression to that of the present day.

I've been listening to interviews with Australians who lived through the Great Depression. They tell of how they got by without wages. This involved relying upon food vouchers and work for the dole, as well as the generosity of shopkeepers and others.

Today we have many young people attempting to survive without wages in the digital economy. They are contractors or 'support partners' for companies such as Foodora or Deliveroo. They often receive remuneration at subsistence levels and lack almost all the usual benefits of wage earners.

Like workers who lived through the Great Depression, they are the victims of wagelessness.

Unusual for my generation, I experienced wagelessness when I was was in my twenties. A component of my studies for the Jesuit priesthood included full-time 'unwaged' work, as a secondary school teacher, and then in the media.

I received board and lodging but no payments. I did not have or need a bank account. Technically the work attracted a stipend (or a wage in the case of my ABC media work). But I did not see either because the funds went directly to the community.

At the time I didn't see the need for an income other than a little 'pocket money' to allow me to go to the movies or get a train out of the city for a bushwalk on a Saturday.

But we all need to build financial wealth to provide a secure future for ourselves, and our family if we have one. The way to do that is to receive not only a wage, but a wage that increases exponentially.

I was lucky that I received a proper 'growing' wage once I left the Jesuits at the age of 30 and, almost 30 years later, have financial security.

The wageless of the Great Depression eventually got jobs, and at least some made up the lost ground. But uncertainty remains for younger people today, including the wageless and those with stagnant wages. What kind of future will they enjoy?

Why I avoid social media news feeds

Yesterday I invited Tony Kevin to lunch. He is a friend from Canberra whom I got to know as a frequent contributor to Eureka Street when I was editor. He's a former Australian diplomat and author who these days writes commentary on Russia. His 2017 book Return to Moscow reflects on his first visit in the 48 years since his posting there as a young diplomat at the height of the Cold War.

He told me that he's feeling demoralised because most editors reject his articles. He says they view them as too friendly to Russia. An exception is John Menadue, who today published Tony's Kerch Strait incident analysis, which scrutinises the pro-Ukrainian 'false narrative [that] is already solidifying in Western media'.

It's true that most people only want to read commentary they agree with. They don't want to be told their world view rests on shaky foundations, even if they're confident that this contrary view is wrong. If their news source includes unpalatable views, they will go elsewhere. Editors don't want to lose readers and most of them will only publish content that is is comforting. It makes commercial sense.

Science and tech communicator Ketan Joshi described 'algorithmic news' on ABC TV's The Drum on Monday. He said that Facebook and the like use their algorithms to create news that confirms their users' pre-existing views. If they gave them content with views they didn't like, chances are that the users would ditch the feed for a rival and revenues would drop.

People who've grown up with social media are particularly averse to discordant views. I'm from an older, more perverse generation that thrives on views we disagree with.

I like to avoid the journalistic junk food of social media news feeds. I don't even spend much time at The Guardian, which would have to be my own online comfort zone. Instead I pay money to Rupert Murdoch to subscribe to The Australian.

That goes against the grain and I don't like a lot of the views I read. But it makes me think, much more than content from The Guardian or the titles of Fairfax (now Nine Entertainment).

I often end up respecting commentators I disagree with. I have no doubt that grappling with diverse opinions gets me far closer to the truth than an algorithmic social media news feed would. But just as importantly, diverse news consumption habits also contribute to a less polarised society.

In The Australian this week, I read Greg Sheridan's argument for the rejection of UK prime minister Theresa May's Brexit deal. Sheridan didn't persuade me to change my mind, but he prompted me to identify exactly why I want to see the UK Parliament pass the deal.


Links: Menadue | The Drum

Parallel visits to Paris

I'd been in Paris for two months and winter was fast approaching. So last week it was good to land back in Sydney, where summer is in the air.

It's the season for catching up with family and friends. I tend to do that in small measure, so it's always a pleasure. Yesterday I enjoyed a visit from my niece, who was up from Melbourne, and there are a couple of friends I hope to see before Christmas.

One is Catherine Marshall, a former colleague from Eureka Street's publisher Jesuit Communications. She left the security of institutional employment about the same time as me, to become a freelance travel writer. She's had notable success at that, having recently been named the Australian Society of Travel Writers' Travel Writer of the Year, for the second year in a row.

I don't get excited by most of the travel writing I read in Fairfax and The Australian newspapers. That's because because economic reality ensures that it is heavy on either promotion or click-bait. But Catherine has a knack of doing the obligatory product placement in a way that does not interfere with the integrity of her observations and life musings.

I was particularly interested in her latest piece on a recent visit to Paris and how she felt she'd aged in the 25 years since her previous visit.

She writes of having returned to Paris with her best friend and original travelling companion. Both were 'wide-eyed young women visiting Europe for the first time'.

As it happens, their first visit to Paris would have been in 1993 - the year of my first visit. My subsequent visit was also not until many years later (2011).

Catherine describes her first visit as a 'fleeting, whirlwind blitz' that contrasts with their 2018 desire to 'discover the city at an unhurried pace'.

I think that my 1993 visit would have been even more fleeting than theirs.

Mine lasted a mere four hours. I was a 33 year old mature age backpacker on my first trip to Europe. I'd not had the opportunity to travel before, so I wanted to cram as much as possible into the short time available. So Paris was part of the 'five countries in five days' itinerary I'd planned for myself.

I recall finding my way to the Sacré-Coeur basilica at Monmartre, feeling judged on the Metro for being so unkempt, and being served 'two' (deux) espresso coffees when I thought I was asking for 'some' coffee (du café). Then it was time to board the train for Barcelona.

The unhurried pace of Catherine's return visit involved slowly gliding along the Seine in a glass-roofed Batobus tourist barge (the subject of her product placement). The unhurried pace of my present-day return visiting is about giving the city two months - instead of four hours - of my time, in the hope of a far greater return on my investment.


Link: Catherine's article

My war remembrance of Great-uncle Hugh

Today is my last day in Paris until March. It's around 11:00 am and I'm sitting in my room a few kilometres from the Arc de Triomph, where world leaders are gathered to commemorate the Armistice that ended World War One.

While I can't avoid the sound of the jets that I can hear flying overhead, I'm not watching it on TV and don't feel inclined to go anywhere near the event itself.

I don't have much time for communal war remembrance as it is most commonly practised. I've been disturbed by the politicisation of war remembrance that has accompanied the disproportionate promotion of the Anzac myth since the Howard years.

In Australia there is a highly selective regime of remembrance that chooses to exclude the Frontier Wars that killed large numbers of indigenous Australians, and also the many unsavoury aspects of war such as the mistreatment of women by our 'heroes'.

My view is that communal war remembrance should be more nuanced. It needs to include an element of contrition for the shameful actions, alongside legitimate pride for actions that went towards achieving what must be the greatest degree of global harmony in the history of humankind.

Yesterday a cousin of my mother's sent some information and photos of Great-uncle Hugh, who volunteered for military service as a 44 year old in 1915. He was killed in action as a Driver in the Australian Field Artillery in northern France in September 1917.

I've always known about my grandfather's service in these parts during this war, but the detail about Great-uncle Hugh was new to me. The electronic album included a clipping from a regional Victorian local newspaper.

It describes him as a farmer and member of the local Agricultural Society who was 'held in high esteem for his sterling character and industrious habits'. He was a single man who left Australia as a gunner with the artillery and was subsequently appointed as a driver.

Great-uncle Hugh was buried in Godewaersvelde British Cemetery, which is located near the Belgian border in northern France. That gives me the opportunity to go there - perhaps on Anzac Day next year - to engage in my own act of private war remembrance.

As a single man myself, I will contemplate his leaving Australia on the adventure of his lifetime without having to be mindful of fidelity to a partner and possibly children back home. Having seen mention of his 'sterling character', I will take that on face value and imagine him resisting temptation to take advantage of vulnerable local civilians he comes across during the course of his service and recreational downtime. As family, I will share ownership of any lapses.

I will be paying respect and hoping to establish a connection that includes a degree of familial affection and solidarity. I will not regard him as a demigod, or even a 'hero' as such. For it seems to be that he was just a man of his time doing what men of his time did, and that his time happened to be a particularly dangerous one.

Would I have done what he did? I don't know. The nearest I came was going to East Timor to join Caritas Australia's relief effort following the destructive events of August 1999. There were known threats to our security.

Some time later I received a mass produced certificate of appreciation from Prime Minister John Howard that implied I was some kind of minor war hero.

I wanted to toss it in the bin but my mother framed it and put it on her wall, potentially establishing a myth that I was in fact some kind of hero. When all I doing was saying yes to adventure that was being offered to me. There may have been something worthy about it, but essentially it was adventure and I wasn't a hero.

A life of creative randomness and circuitousness

I was touched when friend wrote to me this morning mentioning that he hadn't seen a 'tiny letter' from me in some time, suggesting he was worried that I might not be well.

The truth is that I am well, close to the end of my third two-month sojourn in Paris. I'm spending the weekend with my sister and her husband in rural Kent, England, after choosing to make the journey from Paris on the long-distance bus that includes the ferry crossing from Calais to Dover.

The email made me reflect that we all have 'signs of life' that we project - intentionally or otherwise - to friends, family, neighbours, and others. The signs are usually associated with habitual behaviour that is visible. When we break or vary our habits, it can seem that there is something awry.

Two years ago this month I started writing a letter - also referred to as a blog - almost every day. After a while it became less regular, and it's now over a month since I last posted during my visit to Luxembourg.

I didn't want to be bound to produce a piece of writing every day, as I was happily finished with the main part of my working life with all its deadlines and pressures. I wanted to become a free spirit and foster a certain creative randomness and circuitousness in what I do.

This is evident in many aspects of my life such as my choice the other day to travel using the old Dover ferry rather than the modern and more convenient Eurostar train.

While I haven't had a job as such for three years, this year I have started to undertake some paid 'hobby' employment. One of my part-time roles is to do English language subtitles for the Mubi arthouse movie streaming service, and the other involves compiling logs of oral history recordings for an academic at Sydney University.

I have also been doing more reading than usual, and continuing to keep up with my health and fitness regime, currently with a new dimension, which is my experimentation with the no sugar-low carb-high fat diet.

As I mentioned previously, my motivation is not to lose weight but rather to healthily enjoy the high fat part of the French diet, accepting that baguettes and cakes and pastries are definitely off the menu. I have faithfully kept this discipline and been rewarded with plenty of foie gras, duck confit, fatty sausages, and much more.

Will I stick with it into the future? I don't know. I contacted Thai Airways the other day and ordered raw vegetarian meals for my flights to Sydney, as that is the option that is most compatible with the diet. 

Where strong borders belong in the museum

I'm currently in Luxembourg for two days. I'd long been curious about the country that is the world's second richest and the EU's second smallest. It's a grand duchy, which is really no different to a monarchy ruled by a king or queen, except that its head of state is a grand duke.

Luxembourg itself is not on the tourist map because it's dominated by banks and is not a spectacularly charming city. But the natural landscape and the rural villages are another matter, as I discovered this morning when I decided to travel to Schengen.

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While it's only 33 km by road from the capital, Schengen is in a remote corner of the tiny country. It's where Luxembourg intersects with France and Germany, and it requires two separate regional buses to get there.

It's best known as the location of the 1985 signing of the Schengen agreement that abolished border controls between most EU countries, and a number of non-EU countries including Switzerland, Iceland and Norway.

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I enjoyed a visit to the European Museum, which is all about the vision for a Europe without borders and how that came to be realised. Reduced border controls were seen as an antidote to the nationalism that was responsible for the suffering and destruction of the two world wars of the 20th century.

Nationalism and strong borders go hand in hand, whereas international co-operation invites us to rethink the need for strong borders, which divide humanity artificially and, arguably, unnecessarily.

I was aware of this as I walked from Luxembourg into Germany and then into France, all in the space of less than half an hour. The regions I walked into - Saarland in Germany and Lorraine in France - have been passed between France and Germany, as recently as the 20th century.

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Does it really matter whether they're in France or Germany? Regional identity is one thing. It defines cultures. National identity is something else.

At the museum, the elephant in the room was the sad reality that the vision for a humanity united without borders is unravelling, with Europe's migrant crisis and the proliferation around the world of 'strong man' leaders who insist on strong borders.

The museum's focus on the lifting of border controls is intended to celebrate a remarkable achievement that is part of our present. The fear is that it will come to be viewed as a marking of the history of an idea that came and went.